Spiritual expression in the peer to peer era (2): towards a theory of the spiritual commons?

We continue our explorations of participatory forms of spirituality, that we started yesterday.

Developments in theory: the participatory and relational spirituality approaches by Jorge Ferrer and John Heron

John Heron makes a very strong case for a relational approach to spirituality, for which he defines 8 characteristics:

“the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual practices, such as meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a “spiritual” person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of “spiritual” traditions that are oppression-prone. If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up, and this calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes. Certainly there are important individualistic modes of development that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative competence, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-modal integration and consummation.”

Amongst the characteristics of such relational spirituality, Heron outlines how related it in fact is to the peer to peer forms cited above.

“(5) It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

(6) It embraces peer-to-peer, participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a core discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego. Participatory decision-making involves the integration of autonomy (deciding for oneself), co-operation (deciding with others) and hierarchy (deciding for others). As the bedrock of relational spirituality, I return to it at the end of the paper.

(7) It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice, in every walk of life, in industry, in knowledge generation, in religion, and many more.

(8) It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence.”

Heron does not deny the individual aspects of spirituality, but stresses that they are secondary to their expression in the first form, i.e. the relational expression of it.

The eight characteristic listed above, merits development, as it more precisely defines the relationship between autonomy, hierarchy, and cooperation:

“living spirit manifests as a dynamic interplay between autonomy, hierarchy and co-operation. It emerges through autonomous people each of whom who can identify their own idiosyncratic true needs and interests; each of whom can also think hierarchically in terms of what values promote the true needs and interests of the whole community; and each of whom can co-operate with – that is, listen to, engage with, and negotiate agreed decisions with – their peers, celebrating diversity and difference as integral to genuine unity. Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership, as in the free software movement mentioned earlier, is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members.”

Jorge Ferrer’s landmark book, Revisioning Transpersonal Psychology, is the key classic to have reformulated a participatory vision of spirituality from out of the transpersonal psychology tradition. The first part deconstructs the non-relational biases of transpersonal psychology, while the second part attempts to reconstruct a new vision based on participation. However, the relational aspects of participatory spirituality were not emphasized in that book. The the importance of relational spiritual work is stressed in his later writings however, that deal with more practical, less philosophical issues than RTT. In his talks and conferences, Ferrer has introduced the notion of participatory spirituality in terms of three forms of co-creation: (1) intrapersonal co-creation, i.e., of the various human dimensions working together creatively as a team; (2) interpersonal co-creation, i.e., of human beings working together as peers in solidarity and mutual respect; and (3) transpersonal co-creation, i.e., of both human dimensions and collaborative human beings interacting with the Mystery in the co-creation of spiritual insights, practices, expanded forms of liberation, and spiritual worlds.

Note again the congruence between Heron’s points and Ferrer’s second aspect of co-creation. J. Kripal has already noted the important political implications of Ferrer’s influential ideas:

“Ferrer’s participatory vision and its turn from subjective “experience” to processual “event” possesses some fairly radical political implications. Within it, a perennialist hierarchical monarchy (the “rule of the One” through the “great chain of Being”) that locates all real truth in the feudal past (or, at the very least, in some present hierarchical culture) has been superseded by a quite radical participatory democracy in which the Real reveals itself not in the Great Man, Perfect Saint or God-King (or the Perennialist Scholar) but in radical relation and the sacred present. Consequently, the religious life is not about returning to some golden age of scripture or metaphysical absolute; it is about co-creating new revelations in the present, always, of course, in critical interaction with the past. Such a practice is dynamic, uncertain, and yet hopeful—a tikkun-like theurgical healing of the world and of God.”

I would now like to quote extensively from a critique of Ferrer by J. Kripal in Tikkun magazine, because, even if he uses different concepts, he confirms the equipotentiality principle that we explained above. This principle affirms that mystical skills are just one set of skills amongst other, they do not position that person as being absolutely above an other, and spiritual skills do not equate with other skills, such as the ethical ones.

Let’s listen to J. Kripal on this topic:

Ferrer … ultimately adopts a very positive assessment of the traditions’ ethical status, suggesting in effect that the religions have been more successful in finding common moral ground than doctrinal or metaphysical agreement, and that most traditions have called for (if never faithfully or fully enacted) a transcendence of dualistic self-centeredness or narcissism. It is here that I must become suspicious. Though Ferrer himself is refreshingly free of this particular logic (it is really more of a rhetoric), it is quite easy and quite common in the transpersonal literature to argue for the essential moral nature of mystical experience by being very careful about whom one bestows the (quite modern) title “mystic.” It is an entirely circular argument, of course: One simply declares (because one believes) that mysticism is moral, then one lists from literally tens of thousands (millions?) of possible recorded cases a few, maybe a few dozen, exemplars who happen to fit one’s moral standards (or better, whose historical description is sketchy enough to hide any and all evidence that would frustrate those standards), and, voilà, one has “proven” that mysticism is indeed moral. Any charismatic figure or saint that violates one’s norms—and there will always be a very large, loudly screaming crowd here—one simply labels “not really a mystic” or conveniently ignores altogether. Put differently, it is the constructed category of “mysticism” itself that mutually constructs a “moral mysticism,” not the historical evidence, which is always and everywhere immeasurably more ambivalent. Ferrer, as is evident in such moments as his thought experiment with the Theravada retreat, sees right through most of this. He knows perfectly well that perennialism simply does not correspond to the historical data. What he does not perhaps see so clearly is that a moral perennialism sneaks through the back door of his own conclusions. Thus, whereas he rightly rejects all talk of a “common core,” he can nevertheless speak of a common “Ocean of Emancipation” that all the contemplative traditions approach from their different ontological shores.”

Kripal concludes from this:

Ferrer argues that we must realize that our goal can never be simply the recovery or reproduction of some past sense of the sacred, for “we cannot ignore that most religious traditions are still beset not only by intolerant exclusivist and absolutist tendencies, but also by patriarchy, authoritarianism, dogmatism, conservatism, transcendentalism, body-denial, sexual repression, and hierarchical institutions.” Put simply, the contemplative traditions of the past have too often functioned as elaborate and sacralized techniques for dissociating consciousness.

Once again, I think this is exactly where we need to be, with a privileging of the ethical over the mystical and an insistence on human wholeness as human holiness. I would only want to further radicalize Ferrer’s vision by underscoring how hermeneutical it is, that is, how it functions as a creative re-visioning and reforming of the past instead of as a simple reproduction of or fundamentalist fantasy about some nonexistent golden age. Put differently, in my view, there is no shared Ocean of Emancipation in the history of religions. Indeed, from many of our own modern perspectives, the waters of the past are barely potable, as what most of the contemplative traditions have meant by “emancipation” or “salvation” is not at all what we would like to imply by those terms today. It is, after all, frightfully easy to be emancipated from “the world” or to become one with a deity or ontological absolute and leave all the world’s grossly unjust social structures and practices (racism, gender injustice, homophobia, religious bigotry, colonialism, caste, class division, environmental degradation, etc.) comfortably in place.

From this important critique by Kripal, I would like to add an important conclusion. That the shift towards relational and participatory spirituality also necessarily have a ‘negative’ moment, i.e. a phase of critique against any and all forms of spiritual authoritarianism.

The ‘theoretical’ evolution towards relational and participatory forms of spirituality has not stood still. Bruce Alderman , in a summary essay on the internet, describes the new trend towards exploring intersubjectivity itself, both through personal and interpersonal forms of inquiry. He describes the work of Christian De Quincey, through his two books (Radical Nature, and: Radical Knowing); the deep mystical intersubjective work of Beatrice Butreau, and the radical nature of the inquiries by the TSK approach of Tartangh Tulku.

The discovery of the We: the primacy of Relationality and the Collective Field

In this section, we want to articulate the relation between the developments in spiritual theory and practice, discussed just above, with the more general shift in philosophical and sociological conceptions of the human as an intersubjective being, and then look at some more precise developments towards intersubjective practice.

The modern articulation of individuality, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to ‘extract the individual dimension’ of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that ‘everything is related’, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.

This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.

In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.

If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its “relationship parts”. Society sets up a ‘protocol’, in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.

Indeed, human agents never just ‘relate’ in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.

In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish 1) the totality of relations; 2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the ‘protocol’ of what is possible and not; 3) the object of the relationship (“object-oriented sociality”), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action.

In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea. Similar to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, the best designed collaborative systems take advantage of the self-interest of the users, turning it into collective benefit.

This recognition would help in distinguishing transformative P2P conceptions from regressive interpretations harking back to premodern communion. I find this distinction well expressed by Charlene Spretnak, cited by John Heron in a debate with the conception of an ‘inclusional self’ by Ted Lumley of Goodshare.org:

The ecological/cosmological sense of uniqueness coupled with intersubjectivity and interbeing … One can accurately speak of the ‘autonomy’ of an individual only by incorporating a sense of the dynamic web of relationships that are constitutive for that being at a given moment.”

In any case, the balance is again moving towards the collective. But if the new forms of collective recognize individuality and even individualism, they are not merely individualist in nature, meaning: they are not collective individuals, rather, the new collective expresses itself in the creation of the common. The collective is no longer the local ‘wholistic’ and ‘oppressive’ community, and it is no longer the contractually based society with its institutions, now also seen as oppressive. The new commons is not a unified and transcendent collective individual, but a collection of large number of singular projects, constituting a multitude . This whole change in ontology and epistemology, in ways of feeling and being, in ways of knowing and apprehending the world, has been prefigured amongst social scientists and philosophers, including the hard sciences such as physics and biology . An important change has been the overthrow of the Cartesian subject-object split. No longer is the ‘individual self’ looking at the world as an object. Since postmodernity has established that the individual is composed and traversed by numerous social fields (of power, of the unconscious, class relations, gender, etc…), and since he/she has become aware of this, the subject is now seen (after his death as an ‘essence’ and a historical construct had been announced by Foucault), as a perpetual process of becoming (“subjectivation”). His knowing is now subjective-objective and truth-building has been transformed from objective and mono-perspectival to multiperspectival. This individual operates not in a dead space of objects, but in a network of flows. Space is dynamical, perpetually co-created by the actions of the individuals and in peer to peer processes, where the digital noosphere is an extraordinary medium for generating signals emanating from this dynamical space. The individuals in peer groups, which are thus not ‘transcendent’ collective individuals, are in a constant adaptive behavior. Thus peer to peer is global from the start, it is incorporated in its practice. It is an expression not of globalization, the worldwide system of domination, but of globality, the growing interconnected of human relationships.

Peer to peer is to be regarded as a new form of social exchange, creating its equivalent form of subjectivation, and itself reflecting the new forms of subjectivation. P2P, interpreted here as a positive and normative ethos that is implicit in the logic of its practice, though it rejects the ideology of individualism, does not in any way endanger the achievements of the modern individual, in terms of the desire and achievement of personal autonomy, authenticity, etc…. It is no transcendent power that demands sacrifice of self: it is fully immanent, participants are not given anything up, and unlike the contractual vision, which is fictitious in any case, the participation is entirely voluntary. Thus what it reflects is an expansion of ethics: the desire to create and share, to produce something useful. The individual who joins a P2P project, puts his being, unadulterated, in the service of the construction of a common resource. Implicit is not just a concern for the narrow group, not just intersubjective relations, but the whole social field surrounding it.

How does a successful P2P project operate, in terms of reconciling the individual and the collective?

Imagine a successful meeting of minds: individual ideas are confronted, but also changed in the process, through the free association born of the encounter with other intelligences. Thus eventually a common idea emerges, that has integrated the differences, not subsumed them. The participants do not feel they have made concessions or compromises, but feel that the new common integration is based on their ideas. There has been no minority, which has succumbed to the majority. There has been no ‘representation’, or loss of difference. Such is the true process of peer to peer.

An important philosophical change has been the abandonment of the unifying universalism of the Enlightenment project. Universality was to be attained by striving to unity, by the transcendence of representation of political power. But this unity meant sacrifice of difference. Today, the new epistemological and ontological requirement that P2P reflects, is not abstract universalism, but the concrete universality of a commons which has not sacrificed difference. This is the truth that the new concept of multitude, developed by Toni Negri and inspired by Spinoza, expresses. P2P is not predicated on representation and unity, but of the full expression of difference.

These insights and developments are being expressed by contemporary spiritual practicioners as well. What kind of changes can we expect in the expression of spirituality?

1 Comment Spiritual expression in the peer to peer era (2): towards a theory of the spiritual commons?

  1. Daniel

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Spiritual expression in the peer to peer era (2): towards a theory of the spiritual commons?, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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